Sidley Austin LLP - The Inside View

Associates at this supersized Chicagoan wrestle with appealing work and soak up the “the Midwestern vibe."

SIDLEY Austin was founded by Norman Williams and John Leverett Thompson in Chicago in 1866 – long before the city's most famous export, the deep dish pizza, was invented. Today Sidley is known for many Chambers USA-ranked practices, one of the most eye-catching being its appellate group, which has seen the firm involved one way or another in around 40% of the cases the Supreme Court hears each term. These include landmark cases like The United States v Lopez, which ruled that Congress had exceeded its constitutional authority over the legality of guns in schools.

But appeals are far from the only topping on Sidley's deep dish legal pizza. Associates highlighted, for example, that “for M&A and capital markets, Sidley is the clear choice.” Top-tier national rankings in Chambers USA include capital markets, climate change, product liability, and financial services regulation, as well as appellate law. Sidley's high marks are matched by its notable client roster, which in the early days included Abraham Lincoln’s widow, Mary. Today's clientele includes Microsoft, PayPal and Bank of America, to name a few. Sidley's alumni are also worth mentioning. There's David Otunga, who joined after Harvard Law School before turning his hand (and limbs) to professional wrestling and the media. Then of course there are the Obamas (Michelle, then an associate, was mentor to a summer associate called Barack...).

The Work

While litigators tend to start off as generalists, transactional rookies have more opportunities to specialize immediately, depending on the office they're in. Corporate in “New York is officially split into M&A, capital markets and governance,” and juniors here can pick one area sooner rather than later. In the Windy City, by contrast, corporate associates normally “wait until their fourth year” before specializing. Newbies had experienced “an even mix of regulatory counseling and transactional work where banks call us and ask if their proposed strategy can be done. The twist is that Dodd-Frank threw a monkey wrench into things.” Those in the investment products & derivatives group quipped that “we're one of those groups where people aren't sure what we do!” They have three key groups – fund formation, trading documentation work and regulatory compliance – and junior tasks include “drafting documents, client research and SEC filings, as doc review is only likely to be one ten-hour project.” Other transactional groups include: insurance & financial services; securities & derivatives enforcement & regulatory; global finance; pooled investment entities; and real estate.

"Doc review is only likely to be one ten-hour project.” 

General litigation “is split into complex litigation, regulatory litigation, international arbitration and white-collar crime.” Other litigation subgroups include: IP; civil, criminal & constitutional; and regulatory & economic. On arrival, newbies get work from their assigned mentor to “get their feet wet.” After this, assignment is a “free market” that grows via relationships. Once staffed, “there's definitely some doc review but not as much as I thought.” Litigators had conducted legal research, drafted memos and prepped witnesses for interviews, among other things. Some sources had in addition “been involved in pitching to clients, and now I get to draft the initial disclosures or summons,” and others had “been able to second-chair depositions.”

Practice group heads generally assign work to new associates, and work coordinators in most groups keep an eye on how busy people are. "There's an overarching formal assignment system where we can see what work is on offer and can be used if we need it, but the majority of people get staffed through informal relationships. It's better this way."

TOP READ: Sidley's associates give an inside view of the Media

Training & Development

All are treated to a three-day firmwide general orientation in Chicago. Then it gets specific. Second-year transactional newbies are enrolled in "Corporate College." Sidley attorneys who are experts in the field give presentations in this three-day seminar. Litigators had roughly “20 [mandatory] one-hour sessions on different topics.” However, the system is currently being “revamped.” The old method featured sessions on cross-examination, direct examination, deposition training and closing arguments, concluding in a mock trial. The powers that be realized that this wasn't practical. “It seems silly to go over closings, because first-years won't get anywhere near doing it in reality.” Now the program focuses on junior skills, including how to help partners prepare for depositions. “In your fourth year you do a mock trial, as it's more career-appropriate.”

“20 [mandatory] one-hour sessions on different topics.” 

Reviews happen every six months. Like at most firms, associates ask partners who they have done substantive work with to review them. Reviews are then discussed in a meeting with the head of the practice group and a member of the appraisal committee. Reviewers rate associates "on a scale of one to four" on areas including “substantive knowledge of the law, professional conduct, time management, writing and legal research.” However, Sidley stands out for its pre-review system, where associates meet prior to the formal review with a partner who isn't in their practice group. This is so that juniors can raise problems they may be facing with someone external.


"Sidley really recognizes the need to work on this.”

The diversity committee and the committee on retention and promotion of women host “a ton of events. We have different mentoring circles that deal with different things. For example, the mothers' mentoring circle has specific lunches and networking just for them.” Formal mentoring aside, associates felt that Sidley fosters an environment where “there are some really awesome female seniors, who go out of their way to naturally mentor.” Other programs include “regular webinars by the women's committee that help us with professional growth.”

Offices & Culture

With ten domestic offices (including the newly opened Century City base), Sidley's scope spans the States. However, “the Midwestern vibe permeates all of them.” Juniors stressed that it's not “cut-throat; we help each other and the partners work by your side.” While most juniors usually start out in their own office, New Yorkers found they generally share until their third year. DC has been undergoing renovations for the past year and now all associates have adjustable standing desks (which have been implemented throughout the majority of the other sites) and cupboards with dry-erase board doors. “We're going for a futuristic, Silicon Valley-type feel.” HQ residents were happy with their office the way it is. Taking up 38 floors in the “heart of downtown Chicago, it's the best location in the city. There is a gorgeous cafeteria and everything is themed in a mint green color.”

“Sidley’s not a quirky firm, it's traditional but people know that.”

Get Hired

Like most of BigLaw, “there's more of an emphasis on top academics from top schools now.” But it still takes a lot to stand out from the crowd: “The first thing that struck me on the other side of interviews was how important law review is. I've heard partners say, 'Yeah I like her, but she hasn't done law review.'” Others suggested that hopefuls should demonstrate a specific interest in an area of law by at least being able to “talk intelligently about what's going on in the sector.” Others recommended that students shouldn’t “fall into the trap of not promoting yourself. Bring the questions back to why you'd be a good candidate.”

Hours & Compensation

There's some confusion about whether there's an official hours target. Some had “never seen anything in writing,” but most were certain that Sidley operates on the understanding that 2,000 hours is the minimum for bonus eligibility (of which 1,800 must be client chargeable). To achieve this, most attorneys work from around 9am until 7pm, as “after 7pm it's not likely you'll see other people here.” But on the transactional side, horror stories featured public M&A workers “getting in at 6am and leaving at 2am for a whole week.”

“Getting in at 6am and leaving at 2am for a whole week.” 

For bonuses themselves, “my understanding is that if you reach the 2,000 hours, you should get the market bonus," associates believed. "If you're above it, you can get above market rate.” Management and executive committee member Anne Rea clarifies that “we also take into account the conditions in each local market.”

Pro Bono

“The firm is massively committed to pro bono,” insiders claimed, even for transactional lawyers. The firm encourages it through regular email updates and the support of a full-time pro bono coordinator. Once attorneys reach the 1,800 hours target, 200 hours of pro bono work can count toward the 2,000 hours bonus threshold. Rookies described that “the firm has a lot of strong partnerships with not-for-profit organizations.” Anne Rea reveals that “this is done on an office by office basis. For example, our New York office has a longstanding partnership with Her Justice, an organization which helps victims of domestic violence.” Rea also promotes the Public Interest Law Initiative (PILI) fellowship, “where our incoming lawyers can start work at legal service agencies instead of starting at Sidley, and we pay their salary. ”

"I'm now working on an appellate brief. It's an incredible feeling.”

Pro bono hours 

  • For all attorneys across all US offices: 101,327 
  • Average per US attorney: 59

Strategy & Future

Sidley's future plans include becoming even more tech-savvy. With the new office in Century City and nine partners already calling it home, Anne Rea tells us that this has been to take “advantage of key trends in the market such as representing private equity funds and media & entertainment companies.” She further reveals that “our transactional practices have been incredibly busy. M&A, capital markets and other deal flow markets amounted to 40% of the firm’s total firm work last year. ”

Sidley's growth has been planned with a “longstanding no-debt policy.” Expansion occurs by apportioning existing revenue into new projects, to foster security and “leave the firm bigger and stronger than when we joined. That is our legacy and our position for the future.” For more from Anne Rea, read our Bonus Features.

Interview with management and executive committee member Anne Rea


Chambers Associate: What highlights from the past 12 months would you like to flag up for our readers?

Anne Rea: In the past year Sidley has focused on growth, with exciting expansion of our transactional and private equity practices in New York and London and continued growth of our leading appellate, enforcement and regulatory practices in Washington, D.C. The firm opened a new office in Century City, taking advantage of key trends in the market such as representing private equity funds and media & entertainment companies. We now have 20 offices and 1,900 lawyers worldwide.

Northern California, Texas and Asia continue to provide opportunities for Sidley to grow, along with key industries including investment funds, life sciences, and energy.

From a diversity perspective, Sidley was presented with the JPM Joan Guggenheim Diversity Champion Award, as the first-ever recipient for our commitment to promoting, hiring and retaining diverse candidates. In Los Angeles, there are 21 summers joining us this year; 19 of them are diverse. The firm also elected ten partners to our executive committee, with five out of ten of them being women. We are committed to adding more diverse lawyers to our leadership, who will serve as role models for all our lawyers.

CA: What would you say are the hot practice areas at Sidley right now?

AR: When I think of Sidley, I would say that we have diversified, deep practices that offer a full spectrum of legal services that both global and US companies need. While others have limited their practice focus, we have made a commitment to offering a full suite of services, which helps us better serve our clients.

Our transactional practices have been incredibly busy. M&A, capital markets and other deal flow markets amounted to 40% of the firm’s total firm work last year. On the litigation side, Sidley continued to be active in all kinds of disputes and government enforcement. Additionally, I would watch the market cycle. Our restructuring team is poised to help companies deal with market fluctuations.

If I were a law student, I would think about how macro factors in the economy can drive fundamental changes in legal work. Sidley is a stable, financially secure firm, backstopped by our long standing no-debt policy. We invest a portion of our revenues into expansion, in order to leave the firm bigger and stronger than when we joined. That is our legacy and our position for the future.

CA: Are there any final points you'd like our readers to be aware of?

AR: Sidley is very committed to pro bono work and to relationships with not-for- profit organizations. This is done on an office by office basis. For example, our New York office has a long standing partnership with Her Justice, an organization which helps victims of domestic violence. On a regular basis, we second an associate there for several months. Not only is it a great experience for a new lawyer, but it makes a real difference for the lives of women who face tremendous challenges. The firm is also a signatory to the Public Interest Law Initiative (PILI) fellowship, where our incoming lawyers can start work at legal service agencies instead of starting at Sidley, and we pay their salary. No one is required to do this, but it is meaningful work.

In terms of billables and bonuses, when a lawyer starts mid-year, joins laterally or enters into a reduced schedule, all the targets and goals are adjusted. However, if you work full time, there is an expectation that you reach 1,800 hours and at the 2,000 mark you become bonus eligible. We also take into account the conditions in each local market. Our goal is for our associates to have a mix of interesting work. Sidley’s associates are doing really well and are very busy, which is partially why the firm is doing even more recruiting.

Finally, the key things for students wanting to break into the legal industry to consider would be to be thoughtful about the firms you consider pursuing. Do not follow the herd. Examine at a firm's culture, because that is important. Look at the firm’s financial stability as well as its growth plans. As the legal landscape becomes more challenging, you will want to make wise choices and position yourself well for a successful career. No one can see the future in these difficult times, so thinking strategically about career goals and get sound advice. You do not have to make this self assessment every day, but use it when you are making decisions. Being goal orientated feeds into our hiring criteria, along with personal initiative, hard work, talent and being a well rounded and collegial person.

Making A Murderer 2.0: The Curious Case of William Ziegler

MAKING A Murderer is brilliant. It re-defined the genre of true crime documentaries and most people sat in awe as they watched these real, yet fantastical events, unfurl over ten hours of Netflix. But while this may be a stand-out story, it by no means stands alone. Running concurrently to Steven Avery's tale was that of William Ziegler, a 24 year old roofer who was convicted of murder and sentenced to death in 2003.

In 2005, Sidley Austin took on the appeal as part of their pro bono Capital Litigation Project, which fights for people who are on death row in Alabama. An evidentiary hearing was held in 2010, introducing 690 exhibits and 25 witnesses corroborating Ziegler's protests that his court appointed lawyer had failed to investigate the case and ignored the contradictions in the evidence. Additionally, witnesses had lied. The eye-witness who identified Ziegler as the person who threatened to kill the victim, had testified falsely and the prosecution failed to disclose evidence. Namely the evidence that pointed to the killing taking place in the car of the prosecution's only eye-witness and not in the woods as they had claimed. Finally as it turns out, two jurors had also lied during voir dire.

Ziegler's conviction and sentence were overturned in 2012 on 25 violations of his right to a fair trial. The decision was affirmed in 2014 and a new trial was ordered. The State then attempted to retry Ziegler for capital murder, which would result in either death or life imprisonment without parole if convicted. The court however accepted that vital evidence had already been destroyed or contaminated and so a motion to dismiss was filed.

Before the motion was decided, Ziegler accepted a plea bargain that allowed him to walk free immediately after 12 years in prison, not wanting to place his life in the hands of a jury for a second time.

The cases of Avery and Ziegler are not isolated incidents. While Making A Murderer has raised awareness about miscarriages of justice, gross misconduct (while uncommon) still occurs. Thankfully pro bono initiatives, specifically in the arena of capital punishment, work to mitigate the effects. Sidley's commitment to these causes is matched by other firms of this ilk, who see the value in working to right the ship.

Sidley Austin LLP

One South Dearborn,
IL 60603

787 Seventh Avenue,
New York,
NY 10019

  • Head Office: Chicago, IL; New York, NY
  • Number of domestic offices: 10 
  • Number of international offices: 10
  • Worldwide revenue: $1,867,000,000
  • Partners (US): 619
  • Other lawyers (US): 973 (includes counsel and associates)
  • Summer Salary 2016  
  • 1Ls: $3,100/week
  • 2Ls: $3,100/week
  • Post 3Ls: $3,100/week
  • Split summers offered? Case by case 
  • Can summers spend time in overseas office? No
  • Summers 2016: 187
  • Offers/acceptances 2015: 97 offers, 80 acceptances to date

Main areas of work
Antitrust; bankruptcy and restructuring; capital markets; communications; complex commercial litigation; employment and benefits; energy; environment; ERISA; FDA; financial institutions regulatory; global finance; corporate governance; healthcare; insurance; international trade; investment funds; IP; life sciences; M&A and private equity; privacy and data security; products liability; real estate; securities and derivatives enforcement and regulatory; securities litigation; securitization, Supreme Court and appellate, technology; transportation; trusts and estates; venture capital; white collar.

Firm profile
Sidley provides a broad range of legal services to meet the needs of our diverse client base. The strategic establishment of our offices in the key corporate and financial centers of the world has enabled us to represent a broad range of clients that includes multinational and domestic corporations, banks, funds and financial institutions. With over 1,900 lawyers in 20 offices around the world, talent and teamwork are central to Sidley’s successful results for clients in all types of legal matters, from complex transactions to ‘bet the company’ litigation to cutting-edge regulatory issues.

Recruitment details
 • Number of 1st year associates: 132
• Number of 2nd year associates: 132
• Associate salaries: 1st year: $180,000
• 2nd year: $190,000
• Clerking policy: Yes

Law Schools attending for OCIs in 2016:
Berkeley, Chicago, Columbia, Cornell, DePaul, Duke, Fordham, Georgetown, George Washington, Harvard, Howard, Houston, Illinois, Iowa, Chicago – Kent, Loyola, Loyola – LA, Michigan, Minnesota, New York University, Northwestern, Notre Dame, Pennsylvania, Santa Clara, Southern Methodist, Stanford, Texas, Toronto, UCLA, UC – Hastings, USC, Virginia, Washington University, Wisconsin, Yale

Summer details
Summer associate profile:

Sidley seeks candidates who have demonstrated academic success and possess strong leadership and interpersonal qualities. The firm looks for a diverse group of individuals who are motivated by highly sophisticated legal work practiced in a collegial and supportive environment.

Summer program components:
Sidley’s summer associate program is an invaluable window into its practice and firm culture. Participants select projects that interest them and perform legal work under lawyer supervision. An essential component of Sidley’s summer program is the opportunity to learn and develop professional skills. Hands-on training includes detailed reviews of each summer associate’s work product, as well as more formal training programs such as writing seminars, a mock trial and a mock negotiation exercise. Each summer associate is assigned senior associates and partners to provide guidance and each participant receives a formal review at the midpoint of the summer program.